MEMPHIS – At one point during season-ending exit meetings, the Grizzlies’ internal discussion shifted to what the franchise needs moving forward from three specific players.
Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane were singled out among the group.
“They spoke about how they were going to challenge us,” Morant said of the directive that came from team president/general manager Zach Kleiman and coach Taylor Jenkins. “They said it in front of the team, that we have to be the guys that lead us in everything we do, how we work, how we go about things. It’s pretty much obvious, us three leading the charge.”
The Grizzlies are trusting Morant, Jackson and Bane to carry the disappointment from their first-round playoff exit into the summer and derive something positive from the pain.
They’re counting on the three catalysts to push Memphis much closer to its potential as a battle-tested, fortified title contender.
And, by the start of next season, the Grizzlies could be literally banking on Morant, Jackson and Bane as the core that ultimately brings a championship to Memphis.
One of the first business decisions the Grizzlies face this offseason involves the likelihood of offering Bane, 24, a lucrative extension on his rookie-scale contract. Bane becomes extension eligible this summer for a deal that could make him the third current Grizzlies player to secure a multi-year contract worth more than $100 million.
Last summer, the Grizzlies reached terms with Morant, 23, on a max-scale contract extension at the first opportunity they could. Memphis took a similar approach two years ago to lock Jackson, 23, into a major deal during the first offseason he was also eligible.
Because of the NBA’s collective bargaining rules, Kleiman declined to speak specifically on Bane’s potential contract moving forward. But the indication was the Grizzlies eagerly envision a future with one of the NBA’s best young shooting guards remaining in tow.
“Des is a cornerstone, a very significant piece of this group,” Kleiman assured. “He’ll have an even bigger opportunity to be a heart-and-soul guy in this group. Whatever I’m allowed to say about our intention to extend Des this offseason, I say that. Des is a huge part of this.”
Should matters fall into place, the Grizzlies are positioned to have their three brightest stars aligned for at least the next four seasons.
Considering Morant, Jackson and Bane have already experienced three straight playoff seasons, consecutive 50-win campaigns and are responsible for dozens of franchise records, there’s undeniable optimism the Grizzlies are only getting started. All three players are coming off career seasons and statistically ranked among the NBA’s elite.
Yet, there’s so much more room for this group to develop and grow. Morant, Jackson and Bane were limited by injuries and other issues to only 30 games together this regular season, with the Grizzlies posting a 20-10 record when the trio shared the court.
There were flashes of dominant play when the three were available. But they were never able to truly sustain a competitive chemistry and continuity that would drive the Grizzlies deep into the postseason. With Morant, Jackson and Bane collectively breaking out on the same night only once in these playoffs, the Grizzlies suffered a 4-2 first-round series loss to the Lakers.
They are committed to building on their promise entering the offseason.
“It’s getting on the same page with each other, knowing what we all want and what works,” Jackson said. “Every time you can spend time with your teammates, you should, just to get that chemistry because it’s going to pay off down the road. We had our moments for sure, but we can do a lot of stuff better. Have your self-reflection and then make something out of it.”
Even amid some adversity, the Grizzlies have seen all three players blossom rapidly.
A two-time NBA All-Star, Morant followed last year’s All-NBA campaign by finishing this season as one of only three players ranked in the top-15 in scoring (26.2) and assists (8.1). He posted the highest single-season scoring average in franchise history and broke his own team single-season record with seven triple-doubles.
But the prolific point guard missed 12 games to various injuries and another nine absences were related to an NBA conduct-related suspension in March. Morant sat out one game in the playoffs after aggravating a bruised right hand, an injury he played with most of the series.
Morant said he would spend the next few weeks getting away from basketball to refocus on his mental and physical health. After regrouping, the plan is to work on his strength and durability to help avoid some issues that sidelined him for at least 20 games each of the past two seasons.
“Being available is the number one thing for me,” Morant insisted. “There were times this year when injuries had me out, the incident when I got suspended had me away from the team, and then even playing with injuries. I just want to be healthy and available. I feel that’s the main thing for me (this offseason), just attacking my performance side of things even more.”
When Morant is right and on top of his game, the pressure he puts on opposing defenses unlocks lethal options for the Grizzlies. They again ranked among the NBA’s top-10 teams this season in points in the paint, second-chance scoring, transition offense and points off turnovers.
Morant’s ability to attack the paint creates open looks for shooters such as Bane and mid-season trade acquisition Luke Kennard, who rank as two of the NBA’s top-five 3-point shooters.
Bane missed 17 games in November and December with a toe sprain he battled for the rest of the season. Still, he finished behind Morant as the team’s second-leading scorer at 21.5 points a game while shooting 47.9-percent from the field, including 40.8-percent from 3-point range.
Two of his best games came in the playoffs, when Bane scored 36 and 33 points in consecutive outings against the Lakers. He also made strides during the season with his playmaking, averaging a career-high 4.4 assists.
“Shooting is always going to be the key, especially when you have a player like Ja, who is dynamic in open spaces,” Bane said of the unique characteristics between the three. “And Jaren is a guy who commands double teams in the post. The more shooting you can put around guys like that, the better. We’re going to really be the ones that drive this thing and really push it to new limits. Our preparation for next season starts today, with putting our best foot forward.”
Both Morant and Bane said they want to see the Grizzlies add more variety to their attack, specifically in their halfcourt offense. Memphis routinely struggled in slower-paced games and saw its efficiency rate tumble when forced to operate for extended stretches in halfcourt sets.
Jenkins acknowledged his staff would take a “deep dive” into tweaking aspects of the system.
“It’s looking at halfcourt offense, combinations, play calls, drills we’re doing, how we practice, how we use the summer months to deal with certain things,” Jenkins said of the comprehensive approach. “I’m focused on what’s going to get us to our best. Ja leads the charge for us, and it’s seeing Desmond’s growth and Jaren’s growth this year. How are we going to continue to surround them with the right things for execution? Our offense can take leaps and bounds with progression. There’s also our defense. There’s a lot on the table for sure.”
And that table is set with three franchise pillars eager for the next step in their development.
Jackson is the longest-tenured Grizzlies player currently under contract to return. He just completed his fifth season, which was the best of his career after winning NBA Defensive Player of the Year and earning his first All-Star appearance. But what drives him entering the offseason is knowing his breakthrough season didn’t result in the team’s ultimate postseason success.
What Jackson, Morant and Bane share beyond their youth, talent and upside is a collective desire to rectify a disappointing finish. They’re clearly setting a higher standard next season.
Jackson believes what the Grizzlies have in their core doesn’t come around often. The time they have together to reach their goals can’t be taken for granted.
“When we’re all playing well, when we’re all firing, it’s tough,” Jackson confirmed. “And we’ve seen it work. When it works, it works. It’s not something you just look past.”
No, it’s definitely something for which to look forward.
It’s a future with Morant, Jackson and Bane emerging stronger from the Grizzlies’ growing pains.